Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Board portals: Two do-it-yourself wiki options

Your board finally sees the value of having an online portal for sharing, storing and discussing information. You're enthusiastic about the idea - or at least willing to give it a try. There's just one problem: your budget can't handle the additional cost of one of the online portal services. You're out of luck, right?

 Well, maybe not.

I serve on a local board that finds itself in exactly this situation. We want an online space for storing critical organizational documents (e.g., bylaws and personnel policies), distributing meeting materials, and occasionally collaborating on new documents. Given these fairly simple needs - and our perpetually tight budget - a wiki is one low-, or no-cost option (depending on the service) that I'm proposing to them.

Wikis are online, collaborative environments - essentially blank spaces that can be created and adapted to fit whatever storage or interaction need a group might have.   For nonprofit boards, a wiki can either replace or supplement the hefty, three-ring board book that never seems to be handy when they need it. If there's Internet access, there's a way to connect to those critical resources.

It also functions as an electronic "paper trail," making historic records (e.g., several years of minutes, annual reports and budgets) available to future members to provide context and evidence of what was and wasn't done before they joined.

Committees can set up their own spaces within the board wiki,  for not only the same storage needs but for collectively writing and editing documents connected to their work. Since it's housed under the larger board portal umbrella, it's then easy to share those products with the rest of the board when the time comes to propose and discuss.

Most wiki platforms also will have some way to facilitate discussion. Of the two that I will show you in a moment, one has a threaded discussion tool that can be set up as site-wide or page-specific. The other provides for commenting on each page. Other wiki platforms may have one or both of these options - or something completely different.

Because I wasn't sure I could successfully describe what a wiki-based board portal might look like to my peers, I created examples in two of the sources I've used in other settings. I'm sharing these illustrations with readers here, to offer you a similar opportunity to envision what might be possible for your board in this environment.

The first example uses PBWorks, a popular wiki platform that I've used for group assignments in my online classes. Its basic option provides free space for up to 20 collaborators for specific types of organizations (including nonprofits). That version should more than cover the needs of most boards.

Click HERE to access my sample PBWorks portal.

There are tradeoffs to both of the tools I'm sharing here. One of the benefits of PBWorks is its folders option. While embedding links to the documents being stored works perfectly fine (and can be done in PBWorks), there's also something to be said for having folders dedicated to rounding up various sets of files. For example, I set up an "organizational documents" folder in this demonstration, intended to house bylaws, budgets, member contact lists, etc. PBWorks doesn't have a "discussion" tool, but each page includes a commenting option as the default.

The second example uses Wikspaces, which I've frequently used to create online handouts and resources to be shared with international audiences. It's an elegant design that I find appealing. For groups larger than five, Wikispaces charges a nominal fee ($5/month or $50/year). Nonprofits fit under that pricing umbrella. It's not free, but certainly affordable for most of our organizations.

Click HERE to access my Wikispaces example.

Like PBWorks, Wikispaces has its limitations and strengths. On the "strengths" side, Wikispaces has a built-in discussion forum tool. It functions as any threaded discussion would in any other setting. If your board tends to communicate electronically between meetings, especially if your members are geographically dispersed, this may be a selling point for choosing this tool.

Wikispaces doesn't have the same kind of folder storage that PBWorks has (though it's easy enough to find and sort documents via the pages and files menu, which allows for tagging). But, like PBWorks, it's easy to upload files in some member-friendly way. For example, in this example, I set up a page for "key documents" (e.g., the documents I uploaded to the "organizational documents" folder in PBWorks).

 I also set up a "2013 Meetings" page, to show how one could upload and store the materials traditionally mailed out in the meeting packet. They're not only instantly available here (without the printing and mailing costs) for next week's meeting, they're also permanently accessible for later reference.

Wikis are not the only alternatives available for do-it-yourself board portals. (In fact, I'm piloting another tool for my board for consideration before we make a decision. If I can figure out how to create a public demonstration of that environment, I will do so and share in a future post.)

Stating the obvious: the many fine, dedicated board portal services should be explored as Plan A for any group wanting to take this step. They offer a richer menu of tools for scheduling, meeting and communicating than a wiki could ever provide.  If your board needs a broader range of resources, I would encourage you to begin with that goal in mind.

But if you're looking for a simple, low-cost way of organizing your board's work and tools, a wiki may be a workable option for you.

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